Is India changing its stance both with regard to military bases in the broader Indo-Pacific region and even on its soil?
India sits atop and astride a confluence of the the three seas namely the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. All these maritime brinies are of special significance for India that has unfortunately been suffering from a land obsession and corresponding sea blindness owing to the twin challenges from Pakistan and China that have been essentially land based for the past seven decades since the end of the Second World War.
The stability and safety of the broader Indo-Pacific region is vital for India’s security. Its azure waters serve as the lifeline for India’s economic growth, facilitating the transit of over 80 per cent of its critical crude oil imports and a vital conduit for the rest of its international commerce.
India, historically, therefore, has always been committed too and has advocated that the Indian Ocean must be a zone of peace. India has been against foreign military bases in the Indian Ocean and especially on its territory. On December 16, 1971, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) had passed a resolution calling for the Indian Ocean to be a zone of peace, vide U.N. General Assembly Resolution 2832 (XXVI).
Is India changing its stance both with regard to military bases in the broader Indo-Pacific region and even on its soil? At least, so it appears from a read of the recent joint communiqués between India and the United States.
Paragraph fourteen of the joint statement from United States and India dated June 22, 2023, stated that: “President Biden and Prime Minister Modi also welcomed India’s emergence as a hub for maintenance and repair for forward deployed US Navy assets and the conclusion of master ship repair agreements with Indian shipyards. This will allow the US Navy to expedite the contracting process for mid-voyage and emergent repair…”
The same formulation was repeated in paragraph eighteen of the joint statement from India and the United States dated September 8, 2023. It stated that: “The leaders applauded the conclusion of a second master ship repair agreement, with the most recent agreement signed by the US Navy and Mazgaon Dock Shipbuilders, Ltd, in August 2023. Both sides recommitted to advancing India’s emergence as a hub for the maintenance and repair of forward-deployed US Navy assets and other aircraft and vessels…”
A report published in a South India based newspaper on July 11, 2023, underscored the fact that “US Navy warships are likely to undergo repair at Larsen and Toubro’s shipyard at Kattupalli port in Chennai as per a landmark five-year master shipyard repair agreement (MSRA) signed last month between the US Navy and Larsen & Toubro. Currently, the shipyard is providing repairs for US Navy civil command ships”. Mark the words, US Navy warships!
A close in-between-the-lines concurrent read of the two joint statements and the news report excerpted above raises the portentous spectre: Are these agreements a precursor to providing US military bases on Indian soil?
The United States already has a string of hub and spoke alliances in the Pacific part of the Indo-Pacific that commence from Japan in North Asia and go all the way down to Australia encompassing South Korea, Philippines and Thailand. It has a full spectrum security relationship with Singapore and even Taiwan. On September 10, 2023, it upgraded its relationship with even Vietnam to the comprehensive strategic partnership level surmounting the troubled legacy of the Vietnam war that raged in 1955-1975.
In the Indo part of the Indo-Pacific the United States has bases in Bahrain,Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Israel and Diego Garcia. It has a security relationship with Saudi Arabia and Turkey is a Nato ally. The 5th and 7th Fleet of the US Navy regularly transit and patrol the Indo-Pacific from Japan to the Suez Canal. The newly formed security pact between Australia, United States and the United Kingdom, AUKUS, aims to monitor the South China Sea, and empower its regional allies such as Australia by providing them with valuable technology including nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs).
Then there is the fuzzy Quad construct — the Quadrilateral between United States, Japan, India and Australia in the Pacific and the equally amorphous I2U2 between Israel, India, US and UAE in the Indo part. The only thing missing in this entire architecture from the US perspective can be a proper military base in India that lies in the centre of the strategic arc from the Sea of Japan to the Suez Canal.
The Chinese also have been aggressive over the last two decades in scouring for and securing military bases in the Indo-Pacific. From Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, a surveillance station on Coco Islands in Myanmar, and a naval base on the Sihanoukville-Ream in Cambodia, the Chinese have assiduously created and nurtured what they call as the string of pearls.
China is looking to build more military bases in Mozambique or Madagascar in the western Indian Ocean as well. Another naval facility is coming up on the Atlantic Ocean side of Africa in equatorial Guinea. China also has a strategic relationship with both DPR Korea and Pakistan that are nuclear armed states and is emerging as the senior partner in the Sino-Russian relationship.
Where does this scramble leave India? For tensions in the Indo-Pacific region have been exacerbating since Xi Jinping assumed office in Beijing.
India has two options. It can either become a junior partner in the larger panoply of security groupings and networks in the Indo-Pacific that are undergirded by the United States for there never can be an equal partnership given the wide gap in the respective defence capacities of both the countries. The other option is to grow your economy, enhance your net national power and create your own network of bases in the Indo-Pacific, thereby safeguarding your strategic autonomy.
India’s efforts to create a presence in Mauritius and Seychelles have either been too incremental or subverted. While reports suggest that the facility on Agalega Islands in Mauritius is perhaps near completion, the effort to construct a base on Assumption Island in Seychelles has run aground.
India needs to bring the government of Seychelles led by the priestly President Wavel Ramkalwan around to its point of view by attempting to convince them that democratic India would always be a better ally than totalitarian China.
To conclude, India must maintain its strategic autonomy and not allow any military bases on Indian soil irrespective of how they may be dressed up and how attractive the option maybe in the short term. It must look to build its own military bases in the Indo-Pacific.